The debate over the decline of the only real superpower — America — is raging in Washington. As its status and its future role in world politics, foreign interventions and long and short wars were being discussed, US President Barack Obama introduced in early January the “New US Defence Strategy”, marking one of the most important moves since the war on terrorism in the post-September 11 era. That pre-emptive doctrine of the Bush administration, orchestrated and executed by the neo-conservative clique, led to fatal miscalculations, misadventures and destroyed America’s reputation and credibility in the Middle East.
Moreover, the US and the region continue to pay for the short-sighted and overzealous strategy of creative chaos. The new US defence strategy has shifted Washington’s focus towards Asia and China, from its traditional spotlight on Europe and the Middle East. This is taking place after Al Qaida and Taliban actions, Afghanistan and Iraq have consumed the US in terms of manpower, military commitments and financial resources. And it came at a time of financial and strategic decline for the US. It is still haemorrhaging and has been pinned down in the region that stretches from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean, thereby leaving other vital and strategic regions around the world open for its rivals to manipulate.
America, for too long, showed a lack of interest, along with its European allies and Nato countries, in dealing with the GCC states as a collective organisation. The US has preferred to deal with the GCC states on an individual and bilateral basis. So has the EU and Nato as part of its Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. The Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal lashed out in 2005 at the Manama Dialogue over Bahrain’s signing of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Washington. Bahrain had gone ahead with a bilateral FTA with the US; and Oman followed suit in 2009.
Moreover, the US elevated its strategic relationship with Kuwait and Bahrain, branding them “major non-Nato allies” while keeping its ties unchanged with the other four GCC states. For decades US-GCC relations have been asymmetrical when it comes to dealing with the GCC states bilaterally. The relationship evolved from a hesitant one to one wherein we have the first “GCC-US Strategic Forum”, which was held at the GCC General Secretariat in Riyadh on March 31. This meeting cemented the relationship and catapulted it from an alliance to a partnership. But what caused America’s change of heart towards the GCC?
The reasons are numerous but chief among them is the GCC’s coming of age and its intent, after three decades of its inception, to shake off its lethargic and dysfunctional mechanism and leap into a more agile and robust confederacy. It aims to end its cooperation phase and engage in serious attempt to collectively fend off a host of challenges and threats. Other contributing factors to engage in strategic cooperation between the US and the GCC states are basically related to the emerging soft power of the GCC states, and how this group accounting for less than 8 per cent of the total Arab population has 70 per cent of its GDP. Its GDP of $1.3 trillion is the highest in the region stretching from Spain to India. The GCC is the de-facto leader of the Arab world. It has taken the lead role in dealing with challenges arising from the Arab Spring. Another reason that contributed to America’s change of heart is related to the heightened security challenges in Iraq after its withdrawal and Iran’s showdown with the international community over its nuclear programme. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it at the first GCC-US Strategic Forum, America’s policy towards Iran is “one of prevention not containment”. The US strategy in achieving that is through crippling sanctions and isolation tactics.
Other factors could be related to over-arching requirements to act strategically with the GCC states and a need for a collective effort rather than dealing with these issues on an ad hoc or bilateral basis. The pressing challenges range from regional to global security. As Clinton stated at the Forum, they include “terrorism, nuclear proliferation and piracy, as well as broader economic and strategic ties. Among other things, it should help the American and GCC militaries pursue in concert a set of practical steps, such as improving inter-operability, cooperating on maritime security, furthering ballistic missile defence for the region, and coordinating responses to crises”. She reassured the GCC leadership saying, “I underscore the rock-solid commitment of the US to the people and nations of the Gulf.” Moreover, the GCC states are negotiating with the US to help protect GCC oil wells and ports from possible Iranian attack, in which the US will provide “regional missile defence architecture”. This has come under direct Iranian criticism, with Iranian Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi labelling the “regional missile defence” an imperialist-Zionist plot, advising the GCC states not to be part of this ploy.
The GCC states are used to living in a tough neighbourhood with irredentist and covetous neighbours. This long overdue strategic move between the GCC and the US should allay the Gulf states’ fears. It could be a win-win formula wherein both sides in the realpolitik game stand to gain. Abdul Aziz Aluwaisheq wrote in his column in Arab Times recently, “The real test for this newfound strategic approach is whether the two sides and, mainly, the US has a change of heart and is willing to sign the GCC-US Framework Agreement on trade, economic, investment, and technical cooperation … This agreement is expected to be signed before the end of June 2012.”
Working committees of officials and experts are mapping out relevant and mutual issues along with ministerial meetings to move this strategic partnership forward so both sides can reap the benefits despite detractors and opponents who stand to lose from this new partnership.
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is the Chairman of the Political Science Department, Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/docshayji